DESPITE a positive second period, Queens Park Rangers came up short against fellow promotion hopefuls Norwich City.
A lacklustre start by the visitors was capitalised on by the Canaries and Russell Martin slammed home an effort shortly before the ten minute mark for his third of the season.
Matt Connolly then allowed Grant Holt to coast goal-side of him five minutes into the second period and hauled down the Norwich centre-forward.
The eventual red card seemed to galvanise Rangers to an extent with a more attacking endeavour and nerves beginning to set in to the home rearguard.
Chances for Patrick Agyemang and Leon Clarke went awry in a frantic close, with Paddy Kenny in fine form to stop efforts from Wes Hoolahan and Chris Martin on the counter-attack.
A disappointing display overall from the league leaders who in turn will be looking to bounce back against Bristol City on Bank Holiday Monday.
Neil Warnock was forced into one change from successive wins over Swansea City and Coventry City, with the ineligible Tommy Smith making way for Leon Clarke.
Paddy Kenny started behind a back four of Kyle Walker, Kaspars Gorkss, Matt Connolly and Clint Hill with Alejandro Faurlín and Shaun Derry sitting in the centre of midfield.
Clarke joined Adel Taarabt and Jamie Mackie in behind the lone forward Heidar Helguson, with Giorgios Tofas getting a place on the bench.
Norwich started with John Ruddy behind a back four of Russell Martin, Michael Nelson, Zak Whitbread and Adam Drury.
Korey Smith, Andrew Crofts, Chris Martin and Wes Hoolahan started across the midfield while Grant Holt partnered debutante Aaron Wilbraham.
Martin, R – Nelson – Whitbread – Drury
Smith – Crofts – Martin, C – Hoolahan
Holt – Wilbraham
Walker – Connolly – Gorkss – Hill
Faurlín – Derry
Mackie – Taarabt (c) – Clarke
Kick Off: Norwich City v Queens Park Rangers
Successive wins had helped propel Queens Park Rangers seven points clear at the Championship summit, while Norwich had their eyes on chipping away at the R’s advantage and moving one step closer to the automatic promotion places.
Rangers have been solid if unspectacular in recent displays against Swansea and Coventry and how they approached this latest testing fixture would be crucial if they were to get a positive result at Carrow Road.
On a bitter New Years Day in Norfolk it was the hosts who had the better of the opening exchange. Recently Rangers have been plagued by sluggish openings of late and this was no different as the Canaries cranked up the early pressure.
Wes Hoolahan foraged away down the left flank in search of openings while Korey Smith was enjoying some early joy in behind Clint Hill. The R’s left back appeared to be struggling against the pace of the wide-man.
Eventually QPR were punished as the two Martins combined to net for City. Chris Martin danced a merry jig through the Rangers rearguard but his eventual shot was well blocked by Clint Hill at point blank range.
Russell Martin latched onto the loose ball on the right hand side of the area and lashed the ball beyond Paddy Kenny into the bottom right hand corner. It was a hammer blow for QPR in the early stages and it would indeed be a test of character to see how Rangers reacted.
GOAL: Norwich City 1-0 Queens Park Rangers
Rangers responded well after the ten-minute mark with Adel Taarabt growing more influential in the encounter. A good passing move saw Jamie Mackie cross to Heidar Helguson on the far post. The Icelandic international put in a sublime touch and left-footed shot that was well thwarted by Ruddy.
A series of speculative drives ensued from City who were now enjoying the majority of play and possession. By comparison Rangers were looking a shadow of their former selves, struggling to get a foot-hold and press the home defence.
Aaron Wilbraham was then denied his first Canaries goal by an offside flag. The former Bradford and Milton Keynes Dons striker bundled the ball over line after more good work from Hoolahan, only for the official to rightfully deem him offside.
It was proving to be one way traffic towards the end of the half despite a couple of isolated attacks from the visiting side. The Canaries then had a glorious opportunity to double the lead but conspired to miss from close range.
The counter-attacking hosts Russell and Chris Martin combined after useful hold-up play from Wilbraham. Martin in turn found Hoolahan down the left who once again cut the over-exposed Kyle Walker down to size.
His pull back for Holt saw the ex-Nottingham Forest man slice a right-footed effort wide of the right-hand upright. A let off for the below-par league leaders who were fortunate to go in only a goal behind at the break.
Half Time: Norwich City 1-0 Queens Park Rangers
Neil Warnock made two changed at the break, evidently unhappy at his side’s first half display. Heidar Helguson and Clint Hill were replaced by Patrick Agyemang and Bradley Orr – Kyle Walker moved over to left-back and Agyemang slotted in up front.
It was a more positive opening from the R’s who effectively used the pace and power of Agyemang in the early stages. There was even an early appeal for a penalty as the aforementioned forward jinked his way through a couple of defenders.
The incident took place on the cusp of the area and despite receiving no help from his assistant on the spot. Staring directly at the incident he offered no help to Mr Moss who opted to give a free-kick – a big decision in the early stages of the second period.
Barely five minutes later the rug was pulled from beneath Rangers in the disappointing dismissal of Matt Connolly. A period of play that saw Kaspars Gorkss send a hurried backpass to Kenny who in turn slashed at a clearance which didn’t reach the halfway line.
The ball came back and Connolly allowed Holt to get goal-side of him before senselessly tripping the centre forward. As the last man Mr Moss had little choice but to issue a straight red and QPR’s uphill task suddenly became more challenging.
The resultant free-kick was expertly saved by Kenny who had his defenders to thank for snuffing out the rebound. The writing appeared to be on the wall for Rangers who also saw Chris Martin hitting a rasping drive inches wide of the right hand upright.
Taarabt’s influence had been kept quiet for the majority of the afternoon, but brief cameos of magic displayed his importance to QPR – as a result however he was on the receiving end of a succession of late challenges from the Norwich midfield.
Such was the disappointment surrounding these incidents he was cautioned for a foul of his own moments later and Neil Warnock opted to take the opportunity to hand Giorgios Tofas his debut at the expense of the Moroccan.
The ten men of QPR were attempting to mount some attacks of their own, searching for the likes of Leon Clarke and Agyemang who had forged a partnership in the forward line. It wasn’t proving very successful as the hosts continued to counter-attack.
A glorious opportunity presented itself to Chris Martin after being laid through by Hoolahan once more. His touch was good but Kenny was in inspired form to deny the marauding central midfielder at point-blank range.
Rangers manfully tried to press forward but were getting caught out on the break all too often as one would expect. At times the yellow shirts were queuing up but a valiant rearguard action kept the Canaries at bay.
With just short of 20 minutes remaining QPR cranked things up a notch and caused some issues in the heart of the Norwich defence. Agyemang was inches away from connecting with Clarke’s flick-on, while his poor touch thwarted him in front of the target as the ball skipped agonisingly away.
Still Rangers continued to press and Agyemang’s low headed effort was well fielded by Ruddy, Norwich meanwhile were starting to look for the corner flag with the best part of ten minutes remaining.
Rangers were once again agonisingly close to levelling matters with Whitbread able to snuff out a chance before it reached the feet of Agyemang following a scything cross from Tofas. The visitors were continuing to pressurise despite their numerical disadvantage as the noise levels ramped up.
A Derry ball into the area caused more mayhem and following a period of tense scrambles it culminated with Agyemang prodding towards goal. Unfortunately for him and Rangers the effort was straight at Ruddy and Norwich cleared their lines.
Still there was time for Paddy Kenny to pull off another phenomenal save from Chris Martin who raced clear following a Rangers attack. One-on-one the midfielder was thwarted by a stunning save from the R’s stopper, who tipped the effort away to his left.
Hoolahan was in a similar situation moments later but once again Kenny kept the scoreline respectable. The Irishman attempted an audacious chip but the ‘keeper was more than equal to the effort. Time was ticking on the encounter and the nerves mounted around Carrow Road.
There wasn’t enough time for Rangers however as Norwich celebrated what was a deserved victory over the league leaders. An opening period like the closing 20 minutes may have yielded a more positive result but as it stands the lead is cut to four points.
Full Time: Norwich City 1-0 Queens Park Rangers
John Ruddy, Russell Martin, Michael Nelson, Zak Whitbread, Adam Drury, Korey Smith, Andrew Crofts, Chris Martin, Wes Hoolahan, Grant Holt, Aaron Wilbraham (Matthew Gill 82).
Queens Park Rangers
Paddy Kenny, Kyle Walker, Kaspars Gorkss, Matt Connolly (Sent Off 51), Clint Hill (Bradley Orr 46), Alejandro Damián Faurlín, Shaun Derry, Jamie Mackie, Adel Taarabt (Giorgios Tofas 62), Leon Clarke, Heidar Helguson (Patrick Agyemang 46).
Paddy Kenny – 7/10
Rangers stand-out player as mentioned above. The ‘keeper helped make things a little more respectable all-round with a string of fine second half saves and helping bolster a defence that was effectively a man short.
Kenny has displayed his reputation in recent weeks, a reputation well-deserved for shot-stopping and overall command of his area was in evidence today and evidently Radek Cerny is playing second fiddle at present.
Kyle Walker – 6/10
At times he was exciting and adventurous on the day but at other times he was found wanting by the pace and dribbling of a rejuvenated Wes Hoolahan. On occasions this was squarely down to Kyle, but he was over-exposed at times.
Following a classy performance against Coventry today will have undoubtedly hurt Kyle. Glimpses of Tuesday’s display were in evidence but they were all too fleeting for the Tottenham Hotspur loanee.
Kaspars Gorkss – 5/10
Not a vintage display from Gorkss on the day, but his performance did improve following the sending off of Matt Connolly – as did most of the side. Grant Holt gave him a hard time in the air and Hoolahan was menacing on the ground.
The Latvian has put in some inconsistent displays of late, sometimes mercurial and others indifferent. Consistency of a partnership with Connolly or indeed a new central defender will be crucial if Rangers are to continue to keep clean sheets.
Matt Connolly – 5/10
A disappointing display from Connolly which was compounded by another sending off, his second of the campaign. Admittedly he was left over-exposed at times but nevertheless he was another given a torrid time by Norwich’s attacking talent.
The red card was fairly clean cut, clipping Holt while through on goal – rather cynically – after letting the striker get goal-side of him. A disappointment for Connolly who has had an opportunity to play regularly of late.
Clint Hill – 5/10
Hill was rightfully withdrawn at half time after being given a tough time by Korey Smith. Pace does trouble Hill and today that was evident and Warnock correctly acted to rectify this situation.
The former Crystal Palace man has been in good form of late but today has highlighted the minor imperfections in Rangers’ game. Kyle Walker looked more comfortable in that role and dealing with the pace that Norwich had to offer.
Alejandro Faurlín – 6/10
Not a vintage display from Faurlín but nevertheless looked useful at times when in possession. He used the ball wisely by and large and helped Rangers press late on with a string of useful passes and scything distribution.
Where he was lacking was covering in front of the back four, and his off the ball defensive work could have benefited from some improvement today. Overall a good display but not flawless by any means.
Shaun Derry – 6/10
Similar to Faurlín in the respect that he had a decent game, good in the tackle – distribution was slightly less impressive but nevertheless and important team cog and a useful player in midfield on the day.
While it wasn’t a vintage team performance Derry was one of the better performers on the day and his influence will be important in the coming weeks.
Jamie Mackie – 6/10
Hard working as ever, something you would come to expect from the all-action wide-man. Unfortunately that quality in the final third was lacking where it mattered most and this could be down to a lack of service.
His effort as mentioned was unrelenting and when he received the ball to feet and ran at the Norwich defence he looked dangerous – unfortunately for him and Rangers these moments were all too fleeting.
Adel Taarabt – 5/10
Adel wasn’t on song today and unfortunately this had a knock on effect for the side as a whole. He was marked and kicked out of the game in the second period and evidently lost his temper, leading to his booking and subsequent withdrawal.
Taarabt is not the sole reason for Rangers’ rise but he does contribute a great deal – when he doesn’t perform it is a significant weight for the team to bear. Today wasn’t his day and he will look to come again on Monday.
Leon Clarke – 5/10
A frustrating player that seems to have a decent footballing brain but on occasions lacks the ability to make the right decisions in key areas. A bad touch, a misplaced pass – these facets of the game are crucial and eluded him in the final third today.
He did show glimpses of why Warnock made his summer gamble on him today and looked more dangerous as a central striker, rather than a wide-man.
Heidar Helguson – 5/10
Heidar did win some of the ball in the air but was not as effective as he has proven to be in recent weeks. Once his aerial threat was nullified Rangers needed to look at a different angle, the introduction of Agyemang was therefore warranted.
He has been impressive in keeping out Rob Hulse in recent games but today he was marshalled well by a defence that knew how to handle the aerial threat.
SUB: Bradley Orr – 6/10
Coming on for Hill at half time was probably the right decision given the grilling that Hill had received. It improved the defence as a whole and his passing, tackling and aerial challenges were positive.
Orr has been ousted from the side owing to the arrival of the impressive Kyle Walker, but should Walker be required elsewhere Orr will be looking to build on the basics of today and retain his spot in the XI.
SUB: Patrick Agyemang – 7/10
Another half time substitute that was wisely used, Agyemang was the most effective of Rangers’ forwards and had a sterling second period despite Rangers being down to ten men.
The striker used his pace and direct running to put fear in the heart of the Norwich defence and nearly bagged himself a penalty and a couple of goals – on a more fortunate day it could have been a masterstroke change.
A fairly anonymous debut for Tofas who has a similar physique and style of play to Hogan Ephraim on this evidence. Coming on for Taarabt, Tofas struggled to get involved in proceedings and was on the periphery for most of his time on the field.
He did put in a teasing cross that required a good clearance but his contributions were few and far between. Evidently this was his debut and he will require time to bed in.